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The Best of The New Criterion By: Jamie Glazov
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, June 21, 2007

Frontpage Interview's guest today is Roger Kimball, co-editor and publisher of The New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books. He is the author of many books, including The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages ArtHe is the co-editor (with Hilton Kramer) of Counterpoints: 25 Years of The New Criterion on Culture and the Arts, a collection that contains a generous sampling of the very best writing from The New Criterion.

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FP: Roger Kimball, welcome back to Frontpage Interview.


Kimball: Thank you, Jamie. It's great to join you again.


FP: So why bring out Counterpoints?


Kimball: Well, you touched on what Aristotle might have regarded as the final cause when you mentioned the 25th anniversary of The New Criterion. We wanted to commemorate that important milestone in a way that paid homage to the intellectual mission of the magazine. To that end, we decided that an anthology that included some of the most scintillating essays from The New Criterion would be a desirable and fitting tribute.


FP: So tell us about the essays that are in Counterpoints.


Kimball: The forty-odd essays that compose Counterpoints range widely from cultural criticism, literature, philosophy, history, science, art, drama, and dance. Some of the essays deal with contemporary political problems, some deal with unfairly forgotten episodes in the history of art and culture. Prominent among the former is Mark Steyn's "It's the Demography, Stupid," which was the kernal of his brilliant book America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It. Like the book it inspired, "It's the Demography, Stupid," is by turns hilarious and depressing in its portrait of a feckless and barren Europe in the process of being overwhelmed by an increasingly fecund Islamic radicalism.


FP: What do you think makes The New Criterion different?


Kimball: From its beginning in September 1982, The New Criterion has been distinguished by its polemical opposition to the politically correct establishment. You will not be surprised to hear that The New Criterion is not on the list of most favored journals at many colleges or universities. Indeed, at many cultural institutions--not only universities, alas--we have sometimes felt that we are actually disliked.


I think, for example, of the time I was lecturing at a college in Providence, Rhode Island. My wife taught there at the time, and I had been invited to talk about multiculturalism. I pointed out that what generally goes under the name "multiculturalism" is really a form of mono-cultural animus directed against the dominant culture. I had barely left the podium when one of her colleagues wheeled into print into the college newspaper to accuse me of being a Nazi.

Well, it has been ever thus for The New Criterion. Of course a lot has changed since September 1982 when Hilton Kramer brought out the first issue of The New Criterion. Back then, there was still something called the Soviet Union, a minatory, intractable behemoth which, for most observers, seemed destined to lumber on indefinitely. The top marginal tax rate had just been cut from nearly 70 percent to 50 percent, but in August of that year, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dipped to 776 and many were the bulletins alerting us to the impending Death of Equities.


By 1982, we'd suffered through the disgusting spectacle of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the brazen economic blackmail of OPEC--how many of our current political woes were engendered by our inadequate response to those assaults!--but al Qaeda was not yet a twinkling in the mullahs' eyes. No one (near enough) had heard of email, cell phones, or the internet, and the words "multiculturalism" and "political correctness" had yet to be enlisted to register the burgeoning pathologies they named. The university, then as now, was essentially a one-party state, its reflexive, hermetic leftism still untroubled by such broadsides as Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind.


Elsewhere in the world of art, culture, and intellectual life, a similarly sclerotic complacency reigned. The term "diversity" had yet to emerge as the favored shibboleth of those bent on enforcing conformity, but the conformity itself was already deeply entrenched.


Standards--aesthetic as well as intellectual--were low, but then so were expectations. Words like "transgressive" and "challenging" had just begun their bizarre mutation into terms of critical commendation, while traditional epithets such as "beautiful," "technically accomplished," even "true" were drifting into desuetude. What the historian Elie Kedourie called "The Chatham House Version"--that toxic amalgam of smugness, moral relativism, and cherished feelings of guilt about the achievements of Western civilization--everywhere nurtured the catechism of established opinion.


This, of course, was a world allergic to dissent, and it was no surprise that when The New Criterion first appeared the reaction was astonishment followed quickly by rage: astonishment that anyone would even think of starting an unabashedly conservative journal devoted to serious culture and the arts, rage that said party would have the temerity to translate that thought into action.


FP: Can you expand a bit on the Left’s reaction to the birth of The New Criterion?


Kimball: We were at first taken aback and then mildly amused by the fury of the left-liberal--especially the academic left-liberal--response to the debut of The New Criterion. One common if unarticulated assumption was that by presuming to intervene in cultural debate from a conservative perspective, we had somehow violated an unspoken pact: culture, the arts, intellectual life--wasn't all that the prerogative of the Left? Who were we upstarts presuming to contribute to the war of ideas and cultural controversy? We early on lost count of the accusations that we were a nefarious tool of the Reagan administration. After our first issue had appeared, The New Republic ran an hysterical piece that, inter alia, insinuated some dark connection between The New Criterion and the Olin Corporation, a munitions manufacturer. It certainly made for some entertaining press, and overall reinforced our fondness for William Dean Howells's observation that the problem for a critic is not making enemies but keeping them.


The New Criterion has always owed a lot to its enemies. They early on attributed to us an influence and connection to the corridors of power far greater than we possessed. By so doing, they helped assure our success, amplifying our authority by the simple expedient of decrying it.


FP: What is the responsibility of the critic?


Kimball: The business of the critic, said Walter Bagehot, is to criticize. To criticize: that means to sift, compare, discriminate, judge. As T. S. Eliot put it, the fundamental task of criticism is to distinguish good from bad, and its severest test is to select the good and lasting from the noisy throng of new works clamoring for attention. Most cultural artifacts today, as always, are mediocre or worse. Recent cultural life is subject to some special deformations--above all, we think, an ongoing ambition to politicize culture and a concomitant effort to blur the distinction between high and low.


For us, the imperative of judgment, of criticism, has revolved primarily around two tasks.


The first was the negative task of forthright critical discrimination. This is where the polemics come in. In the note to our inaugural issue, we spoke of applying "a new criterion to the discussion of our cultural life--a criterion of truth." The truth was, and is, that much of what presents itself as art today can scarcely be distinguished from political sermonizing, on the one hand, or the pathetic recapitulation of Dadaist pathologies, on the other. Mastery of the artifice of art is mostly a forgotten, often an actively disparaged, goal. At such a time, simply telling the truth is bound to be regarded as an unwelcome provocation.


In the university and other institutions entrusted with preserving and transmitting the cultural capital of our civilization, kindred deformations are at work. Pseudo-scholarship propagated by a barbarous reader-proof prose and underwritten by adolescent political animus is the order of the day. The New Criterion sallied forth onto this cluttered battlefield determined not simply to call attention to the emperor's new clothes, but to do so with wit, clarity, and literary panache. We acknowledge that these have been hard times for the arts of satire and parody. With increasingly velocity, today's reality has a way of outstripping yesterday's satirical exaggeration.


Nevertheless, The New Criterion has always been distinguished by its effective deployment of satire, denunciation, and ridicule--all the astringent resources in the armory of polemic--and that is one of the things that enabled the magazine to live up to Horace's injunction to delight as well as instruct.


But The New Criterion is not only about polemics. As a glance at the contents of our any issue of the magazine or the table of contents of Counterpoints shows, an equally important part of criticism revolves around the task of battling cultural amnesia. From our first issue a quarter century ago, we have labored in the vast storehouse of cultural achievement to introduce, or reintroduce, readers to some of the salient figures whose works helped weave the great unfolding tapestry of our civilization. Writers and artists, philosophers and musicians, scientists, historians, controversialists, explorers, and politicians: The New Criterion has specialized in resuscitating important figures whose voices have been drowned out by the demotic inanities of pop culture or embalmed by the dead hand of the academy. It is worth noting that our interest in these matters has never been merely aesthetic. At the beginning of The Republic, Socrates reminds his young interlocutor, Glaucon, that their discussion concerns not trifling questions but "the right conduct of life." We echo that sentiment. The New Criterion is not, we hope, a somber publication; but it is a serious one. We look to the past for enlightenment and to art for that humanizing education and ordering of the emotions that distinguish the man of culture from the barbarian.


FP: Roger Kimball, our time is almost up. Any concluding remark you would like to make?


Kimball: Let me end with a word about politics. The New Criterion is often described as "conservative" and praised or disparaged according to the political coloration of the speaker. In fact, we are a liberal publication, understanding the term "liberal" in the sense that Russell Kirk used it when he observed that he was a conservative because he was a liberal. "Conservative": that means wanting to conserve what is worth preserving from the ravages of time and ideology, evil and stupidity. In some plump eras, as Evelyn Waugh observed in one of his essays, the task is so easy we can almost forget how necessary it is. At other times, the enemies of civilization transform the task of preserving culture into a battle for survival. That, we believe, is where we are today. And that is one reason that The New Criterion's effort to tell the truth about culture is as important today as it was in 1982. Counterpoints provides wide-ranging record of our contributions to this imperative task.


FP: Roger Kimball, thank you for joining us.


Kimball: Jamie, thank you and Frontpage for listening. I hope your readers will enjoy the book.


Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine's editor. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a specialty in Russian, U.S. and Canadian foreign policy. He is the author of Canadian Policy Toward Khrushchev’s Soviet Union and is the co-editor (with David Horowitz) of The Hate America Left. He edited and wrote the introduction to David Horowitz’s Left Illusions. His new book is United in Hate: The Left's Romance with Tyranny and Terror. To see his previous symposiums, interviews and articles Click Here. Email him at jglazov@rogers.com.

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